On Jason K. Allen’s “Succeeding at Seminary.”
Cultivating a view of seminary training that’s less like a “convection oven” and more like “theological slow-cooker.”
I am obliged to make two acknowledgments prior to this review: (1) I am a current seminarian at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS), and (2) I was gifted this book for the express purpose of this critique. Some might consider those disclosures as a conflict of interest if an honest review is genuinely to be expected. Nevertheless, my affiliation and affinity for the institution and its head have in no way swayed my opinion in the subsequent evaluation. With that out of the way, let us hasten to the analysis.
As the incumbent president of MBTS in Kansas City, Missouri, Dr. Jason K. Allen serves as one of the foremost voices for Southern Baptist and, more broadly, evangelical thought and life. His visionary stewardship of MBTS has animated a renewed emphasis on local ecclesiastical ministry. The institution’s express purpose to exist “for the church” transcends the usual tropes of corporate catchphrases by occupying a sincere place in the administration’s initiatives and intentions. To that end, Dr. Allen has penned Succeeding at Seminary: 12 Keys to Getting the Most Out of Your Theological Education, a guide-book, of sorts, for the aspiring seminarian and minister to reap the most reward out of his or her season of theological higher education.
The “12 Keys” neatly allow for twelve succinct chapters in which Dr. Allen articulates the process of refining one’s call to ministry, choosing the right institution, and balancing one’s educational, ministerial, and familial responsibilities while engaged in a higher learning environment. Dr. Allen grounds his discussion of the necessity of seminary training by highlighting its resonance for those called to ministerial service. “For those called to ministry, preparation is nonnegotiable,” he maintains (14). The call to ministry is too momentous to be accompanied by a haphazard approach to theological education (Rom. 10:13–17). “Seminary,” he continues, “is not just a season of theological formation; it’s also a season of spiritual and ministerial discovery. A healthy seminary experience will not only inform the mind but shape the heart and crystallize the calling” (22).
Within the framework of seminary as a preparatory way-station, Dr. Allen contends that theological higher education allows for pastors to develop the requisite fervor for a life of ministry. Although seminary is not a divine imperative imposed on everyone called by God for his service, it does afford one ample opportunity to incubate humility (29). “You can be an amateur even if you hold a seminary degree,” Dr. Allen confesses, “and you can be a faithful minister even if you lack one” (26). The point is not the laminated paper one receives once seminary is over. Rather, it is the process by which one is furnished the necessary window to merely sit and glean at Jesus’s feet (Luke 10:38–42). “The heart posture with which you pursue your education,” Dr. Allen writes, “will make all the difference in the world” (53).
From there, he delves into a series of practical matters, from dissecting the pros and cons of online versus on-campus education, to stewarding one’s time, to properly assessing seminary’s financial burden, to wisdom in getting placed in a ministry position upon graduation. Throughout these intervening chapters, Dr. Allen challenges the reader, and likely seminarian, to uphold Christ even amid all the mundanity and minutiae that accompanies educational protocol. “Jesus is the apex of Scripture,” he declares; “therefore He should be the apex of your studies. Listen for Him in every lecture. Look for Him in every reading” (55). It is in this way that the burgeoning student will flourish into an unashamed workman who rightly divides the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). “You should pray, plan, prepare, and take every other prudential step,” Dr. Allen charges those on the threshold of seminary, “but it remains a step of faith. Don’t let fear or uncertainty delay you” (110).
Of all the opportunities to revel in the merits of one’s position and place, authoring a work on how to succeed at seminary while serving as a seminary president might have yielded Dr. Jason Allen the premier chance to relish in the blessings which have been bestowed on his beloved institution. But it is a welcome surprise that this book is not a commercial for MBTS. Dr. Allen resists any glib scrutiny of other institutions. In fact, he candidly asserts that God’s call to ministry on individual lives looks different. His consequent conclusion is not that one is properly “sold” on enrolling at MBTS, but that one receives and responds to the call of God on one’s life with humility, obedience, and zeal.
Perhaps the purview of Dr. Allen’s objective would not allow for it, but it might have been helpful to sketch the history of theological higher learning, especially as it involves distinctively Baptist tenets of faith and practice. One may argue that the author has already accomplished such a feat with his paper, “Training the Next Generation of Pastors, Ministers, and Missionaries: Southern Baptist Theological Education in the Twenty-First Century” (see The SBC and the 21st Century, 195–207). But, nevertheless, the inclusion of a historical precedent for seminary training would have been both insightful and helpful in the crystallization of one’s seminary aspirations, especially for the reader on the cusp of enrollment.
Altogether, Succeeding at Seminary achieves its objective in clarifying what seminary is, what it is for, and why it matters. While seminary is not, by any means, mandatory, it does supply the prospective minister the capacity to be fashioned into mature, marinated shepherds of the flock of God. “Seminary is a divine disruption,” Dr. Allen asserts, which “invites us — demands us — to take stock of our lives” (50–51). Seminary provides one the indispensable occasions and conditions to steep in sound doctrine. “Seminary studies make you a better minister,” writes Dr. Allen, “not just because of what you learn, but because of the maturity, responsibility, and self-discipline the entire process cultivates” (60).
Seminary is sometimes approached as though it were a convection oven, microwaving “preacher boys” and placing them in ministerial circumstances and ecclesiastical contexts for which they are ill-equipped to manage or navigate. But a better perspective might be to see it as a “theological slow-cooker.” The inherent urgency of the gospel message ought not cripple the steadfastness and faithfulness with which the church is summoned to “commit to faithful men” the sound doctrine of God (2 Tim. 2:2). Indeed, being “strong in grace” involves embracing the certain authority of the Lord Jesus over his kingdom, which liberates one to be patient with one’s passion and mindful of one’s mission (2 Tim. 1:13–14; 2:1). The profoundest need of the church is for unashamed and approved workmen who rightly divide and disseminate God’s grace and truth for God’s church (2 Tim. 2:15). “Correctly handling Scripture,” affirms Dr. Allen, “takes diligent work, deep thinking, and dogged perseverance. Superficial readers and preachers of the Word recreate superficial believers in the Word” (81). Accordingly, a “slow-cooked” seminarian, therefore, culminates in a shepherd who is ready to be incorporated into the marathon of ministerial life and service.
Jason K. Allen, Succeeding at Seminary: 12 Keys to Getting the Most Out of Your Theological Education (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021).